Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Courtesy, game, ritual, architecture, engine, dance

The rumba, basic steps

Form might be regarded in various ways: as courtesy, as game, as ritual, as architecture, as engine, and as dance.

Courtesy is a sophisticated, coded way of addressing another and establishing a set of social expectations. Modernity has tended to reject it, partly on the grounds that it might be over-constrictively hierarchical, only to replace it with its own codes, no less constrictive, no less hierarchical, but less willing to be codified in a book of poetic etiquette by an aspiring Emily Post of verse. The very word, etiquette is an object of suspicion, suggesting dishonesty and prissiness. Other cultures’ courtesies are to be honoured, but ours are to be reduced to a knowing minimum. We feel our way to the limits of our liberties and look askance at those who do not recognise them. One would have to be something of a prude to build a case for terza rima, or any other demanding form, entirely on grounds of courtesy.

We may, of course, regard courtesy as a game with all the functions of a game; that is, on the one hand, entertainment, and on the other the symbolic acting through of structured energies that might otherwise be employed in real conflict. Game depends on rule and surprise, pitting the fixed against an element of chance that may amuse or frustrate. The rules of a game don’t produce uniform results or uniform development. No two games of football are exactly the same, though the rules that govern them are identical. Of course the rules themselves may be applied in various ways by the officials or the players. Games are fascinating because of the delicate balance between the structure and the variable. So games in poetry may amuse: the more demanding the rule the greater the amusement. Byron, for example, may amuse by rhyming intellectual with hen pecked you all in 'Don Juan', daring us with the polysyllabic then offering bathetic relief with an ingenious but distinctly unheroic resolution. But, on the symbolic level, the demands of form, serve as recognised sublimations of energy, much as in sport the beauty of the disciplined body in action enacts a desire.

Ritual, as most people recognise, carries enormous psychological significance, whether as superstition that jokes about itself as superstition yet continues in superstition, in terms of routine or of certain lucky items, or as a religious ceremony that conjures the deity or commemorates a sacred name. The meaning of ritual is almost independent of its magical object. It produces its own magic. Whispering a spell over and over again produces the expectation of miraculous change or illumination. Whatever I say three times is true. Weave a circle round him thrice. Shantih, shantih, shantih. The three of terza rima too is a form of ritual. It helps, of course, if you are a believer, for ritual otherwise is simply people behaving strangely.

Architecture in form offers a firm and. importantly, indifferent, structure that can take the weight of ideas, emotions and events. It is indifferent because, once adopted, it is simply there, irrespective of mood or self. If the architecture is wrong the house falls down. Each poetic form imposes its own particular kind of architectural indifference. Terza rima’s begins with courtesy, runs through game and ritual and assumes the form of architecture. The structure of hell, purgatory and paradise is itself an architecture that Dante must explore. The architecture of the verse provides the framework for the language of the poem; its staircases and corridors and rooms and halls. Architecture, as classically understood, depends on some kind of regularity. Goethe said architecture was frozen music.

But terza rima is also the engine that keeps us moving down the passages and chambers, always propelling the poem forward. Of all the formal devices available it is arguably the one with the greatest forward dynamic. Once the engine is engaged it wants to keep going and the reader too moves on, ever mindful of what has been left behind and what is to come, moving on towards the last of the useful metaphors: the dance, so that eventually, as Yeats put it, we cannot tell the dancer from the dance.


Nicole S said...

I tried the steps and found they are the same as in danzon, an old Cuban dance that revives on Wednesday (I think) evenings in the public garden of Veracruz, on Mexico's Gulf coast. At a certain point, the dancing stops, the women fan themselves and the men wipe their brow with a large handkerchief, then at a given drum beat the couples set off again. There's etiquette for you. Most of the dancers are elderly and it is all very sedate, but danzon was once thought scandalous, with its close embrace and licentious swaying of the hips. The music is terrific, and there was a lovely Mexican film called Danzon. My, I do go on, but thought you might be interested.

George S said...

I am interested, Nicole. In my old age I would want to learn dances. I was lighter on my feet at forty than at thirty, and oddly, am lighter on them now than I was then. But that's is not to do with physical condition (not yet, anyway) as to pleasure and confidence.

But really, I have never learned formal dancing. I wish I had.

litrefs said...

I like these.

In the Game section you could mention the competitive element that exists in some cultures.

I suppose Acrostics fall into the game category, though I think they're sometimes used more significantly than that.

Form's an engine for the poet as well as the reader - the crankshaft of "a machine for remembering itself"

The use of a form is an allusion to earlier uses of the form. Form can also convey meaning/emotion more directly. Some OuLiPo devices are part of the plot. Palindromes like Julia Copus' "The Back Seat of my Mother's Car" have power in the form.

Maybe Form as Exploration/Torture fits into the Ritual section.
It's interesting to see what "beauty" survives or emerges if you keep to the rules, it's almost as if it were a discovered (rather than invented) "truth", something buried or inherent in the form/constraint that has to be "brought out".

The use of form which puzzles me the most at the moment is in "Hybrid poetry".
Lyn Hejinian in "Moving Borders" wrote "Can form make the primary chaos ... articulate without depriving it of its capacious vitality, its generative power? Can form go even further than that and actually generate that potency, opening uncertainty to curiosity, incompleteness to speculation, and turning vastness into plentitude? In my opinion the answer is yes", which sounds fine, but LangPoSonnets are too much of a shock to my system.

Nicole S said...

Never too late to learn to dance, George, although I'm not sure where you'd find the time.

George S said...

litrefs (Tim) yes, points taken, all those might have been included. I myself believe that the chief point of form is process, and that product is not something isolated, but serves as evidence of process. I have been arguing that very point in the same essay from which this post is taken (the one on terza rima)

Torture is an interesting idea. The Masochistic Tango was a Tom Lehrer song. But then this leads us back to process, and to my chief argument for form, that the process leads - in talented hands - to less predictable product.

And Hejinian is dead right, in principle, that the generative power of chaos is vital. It is just that form may be an aspect of the same thing, in that (and I have argued this elsewhere) language itself is a system in which the individual counters are arbitrary, so a rhyme, for example, is in itself a meaningless coincidence. Deployment of it is part of the chaos.

I don't think LangPoSonnets hold tension - they give way to chaos too easily. They go with the flow. I want counterpoint. Syntax / system in a condition of desire, subjected to chaos, and coming up new as an illusion that corresponds to our sense of experience, not as specialists of language or poetry, but as speakers and users of it.

That's the idea, anyway.

Poet in Residence said...

Hello George, apropos rhyme games, I'm "juice horsing around":

riding the range
eating an orange
juice made me cringe
peeled a fresh orange

ps- On PiR's 'About Me' as from today you're down as "my favourite blogger". Congratulations! ;>)